Virtual Reality Could Be Used To Treat Stubborn Depression Symptoms

By Lindsey Weedston 04/29/19

One research team is on a mission to treat one of the most difficult and overlooked parts of depression to treat using virtual reality.

a man and woman using virtual reality for their depression symptoms

Researchers are currently testing virtual reality programs on depression patients with the idea that going through positive experiences, even virtually, and focusing on the positive aspects of the experience could effectively treat anhedonia.

This symptom, characterized by a lack of interest in anything and an inability to feel pleasure, is one of the most difficult parts of depression to treat and is often overlooked, according to University of California psychiatry researcher Michelle Craske.

“Most treatments, up until now, have done an OK job at reducing negative [symptoms of depression], but a very poor job at helping patients become more positive,” said Craske to STAT.

Using virtual reality, Crask and her colleagues guide patients through dives into coral reefs and tours through Venice, instructing them to report every pleasurable detail. This approach, called positive affect therapy, trains patients to pay more attention to what makes them feel good and hopefully amplifies feelings of pleasure and joy.

Thanks to the development of virtual reality technology, it’s possible to bring all kinds of incredible experiences into one office or into people’s homes. Patients can return to their favorite experiences and explore what makes them happy without spending a ton of money.

“Mental health and the environment are inseparable,” said University of Oxford psychologist Dr. Daniel Freeman. “The brilliant thing about virtual reality is that you can provide simulations in the environment and have people repeatedly go into them.”

Research on this therapy is still in preliminary stages, but the early results of Craske’s work look promising. In fact, Craske’s team is looking to work with virtual reality companies specifically to develop a program that adapts to patient mood indicators.

“If, for example, a patient smiles at a VR character who waves and says hello, that character might walk over and strike up a friendly conversation.”

Virtual reality is currently being tested for possible application in all steps of mental health treatment, including the earliest ones.

According to an article in WIRED earlier this year, researchers are exploring whether this new technology could be used to better diagnose mental and neurological conditions such as depression, PTSD, and Alzheimer's.

“With some psychiatric disorders, for example OCD or panic disorder, patients usually experience their symptoms in their personal environment or in crowded places, and not in the clinician’s room,” said University of Amsterdam’s Department of Psychiatry researcher Dr. Martine van Bennekom. “With VR it is possible to immerse patients in an exterior environment while the clinician can observe symptoms and interview the patients about these symptoms and underlying thoughts.”

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at Twitter: